If you follow Rugby League, there’s extra tension during the month of September. The burning question remains: will my team make it to the Grand Final and win the premiership, or will they lose it in extra time like they did last year? For those in the state’s north, we can only hope for a repeat and deservedly back to back premierships for one of the greatest players and ambassadors of Rugby League, Jonathon Thurston.
With the pointy end of the season now here, extra media attention means everything is more public, more scrutinized, more amplified. The game is currently ‘reeling’ from the scandal of alleged match-fixing and the issues of gambling – which are prevalent in the wider community – and no doubt, are certainly present in the rugby league players’ fraternal. And then there is the issue of individual behaviour, and how quickly a person can be publicly scapegoated for making mistakes. Normally I don’t pay much attention to these things, however, one instance caught my eye recently.
It’s been reported that Andrew Fifita has written three letters on his bandaged arm each week saying ‘FKL’. Allegedly, it’s a symbol of support for a friend of his who he visits each week. The problem: his friend is a convicted criminal who is serving a sentence in prison for a ‘one punch’ attack that resulted in the death of an innocent person. To make matters worse, the brother of the victim later suicided and so a family was devastated by the loss of two sons.
Rightly, there is outrage that Fifita would be so insensitive, particularly toward the surviving members of the victim’s family, by reminding them of what happened in such a public setting. Commentators and ex-players alike have been unanimous in calling for him to be either sacked or at least stood down for the finals series. Some have made some more nuanced statements recognizing that the issue isn’t that Fifita has shown support for the offender, but rather the ‘way’ in which he has gone about it. It seems that Fifita is allowed to go to the prison to visit and support his friend, but we shouldn’t have that shoved in our face – and potentially the face of the victim’s family. His lack of empathy has been condemned.
I understand that point. If my children had died due to the actions of a violent attack, then I wouldn’t want to be reminded of that every time I watch the football.
But I wonder if the issue goes deeper than that? Could it be that this public statement of support for a prisoner grates on society’s sensitivities? Not only is it insensitive to the victim’s family, but the community at large don’t like the idea that a prisoner – any prisoner – is being supported and indeed having their needs ‘promoted’ in the public sphere.
The general mantra is that prisons are places best kept out of sight and most certainly, out of mind. No one wants to be associated with prisoners because of the stigma. We don’t want them in our neighbourhood because of what they will do to the value of our real estate. We don’t like the idea of criminals waiting at our nearest train station or bus stop upon release from the big-house.
This fits the predominant thinking around crime and punishment. The offender has been removed from the community to make the community safe. They are the guilty ones and they should be punished for their actions. Their removal is for our safety and peace of mind.
Even the language we use is removed… re-read what I have written above, and you’ll find words like perpetrator, offender, prisoner. The person I am talking about is also someone’s son. His name is Kieren. First and foremost, he is a person. A person that has made a terrible mistake – which he is now paying for – and no doubt will carry around the resultant guilt for the rest of his life.
While everyone has been talking about Andrew Fifitia and ‘this issue’, there seems to be a consensus in opinion about what should happen when a person goes to prison. Our retributive justice system uses prison as a penalty; a punishment. The removal of freedoms and the act of incarceration is the punishment meted out to the person to ‘teach them a lesson’. Essentially, a lengthy prison sentence is to act as a deterrent to the offender. That is widely accepted and agreed upon.
But the real issue and indeed the case at hand is this; with a few exceptions, everyone ultimately comes back from prison and into the community. There is general agreement that what happens inside of the prison should be constructive. It should be rehabilitative. It should be transformative of the individual’s behaviour so that they become safe people who are able to participate in ‘normal’ life when they re-enter the community.
Ironically, it takes a misguided football star, through well intentioned, although inappropriate actions, to point out the obvious.
It is the community as a whole (and I would say, the Christian community, in particular) that should be really interested in what is happening behind the razor wire, behind the bars, behind closed doors.
The only way we are going to discover this is to take a step “inside”, ourselves. I wonder how many thousands of young men and women in the state of Queensland have no one to come and visit them and encourage them and at the very least, offer them hope for a new future when they come back “out”.
For Christians, the impetus for this can be directly related to the very words of Jesus. If Andrew Fifita – and I know nothing of his faith or otherwise – is able to do this very simple thing: supporting someone in prison and seeking a better future for him upon release, and for the community as a whole… how much more should those who have the biblical injunction to do so?
Whether we realize it or not, what happens in prison is everyone’s business because it impacts us all. Wouldn’t it be a far better outcome for everyone to know that the person who has come out of prison is changed, having discovered a better grand-narrative for their life, a true story of redemption, true repentance, true forgiveness and a fresh start as someone caught up in the story of new creation!
You and I all have a part to play in that. For some people, it literally means responding to the promptings of the Holy Spirit and visiting those in prison on a regular basis. Some as chaplains, some as mentors, some as pen-pals. For all of us, it should give us a moment to pause and ask God what the condition of our own hearts are towards those who we consider least, and are esteemed not. We all have our part to play.
If you want to find out more about visiting those in prison, or hearing about what really happens behind closed doors, please contact me.